How to understand FAMILY NAMES

I was inspired for this series of posts by the many requests for help that are posted on Facebook groups, where assistance in understanding handwritten records is asked.

Handwriting can be an issue, and not only for foreigners. Sometimes, even Italians struggle with unintelligible words and sentences.

Well, believe it or not, in some cases it is possible to bypass the handwriting problem.

We could call it…


Here is my third post and it is dedicated to FAMILY NAMES

The previous ones were dedicated to PLACE NAMES and FIRST NAMES, here are the links, if you missed them:



I am not going to teach you how to read a particular calligraphy. I am going to give you some hints which may be helpful to interpretate the correct name.


  1. In the Italian rural society of the past, families were usually deeply rooted in their town of origin. For this reason, some surnames were very common in a specific town and absent in other towns.
    If you cannot figure out the correct spelling of a family name, browse other pages or possibly the INDEX of the register: you may discover more occurrences and find out the correct spelling.
    Do not limit your search to the index of the same register you are browsing: if the handwriting of the record is bad, that of the index may be the same one.
    Search for a better index, even many years before or after: as said, families were rooted in the town and so, you may find the same names reported also in the usually clearer 20th century registers.

2. If this is not possible, check if the surname is still present in town.

I use the following link, it’s a telephone guide.

Unless other online telephone guides, providings results only if you input the correct surname, this one shows you the list of all surnames in town.

This is very useful especially if you did not catch the initial letter of your surname: check all initial letters and you may find the correct surname.


Select the province

Select the town

Select the initial letter

This website is based on search entries, not only on surnames, so you may find entries like “hotel” or “taxi” (besides a lot of annoying ads, I am sorry).

3. If the researched surname is definitely not specific of that town, you may double-check the surnames of the surrounding towns: people were not usually moving to distant towns, so it is possible that the person you are searching for was coming from a nearby one.

To find out the neighboring towns, use the Italian version of Wikipedia: digit the town and you will find them listed on the right margin (Comuni confinanti).

Choose indexes written in a readable way and browse through the surnames.

4. Check if your ancestor signed at the bottom of the record: his handwriting may be clearer than that of the clerk or priest (and you also win a copy of your ancestor’s autograph!)

5. Just like I explained for first names, Italian family names follow the rules of Italian grammar, so some combinations of letters are more likely than others. Here are some basic rules to help with the correct spelling.
The letters C, D, F, G, L, R, S, T, V and Z are not preceded by M, they must be preceded by N.
Examples: Bianchi, Conti, D’Angelo
The letters P and B are not preceded by N, they must be preceded by M Examples: Colombo, Campi.

Surnames usually end with a vowel, like the majority of Italian words.

Only in a few cases they end with a consonant, and this is usually N (especially in Veneto and North-Easter Italy), R, S, T or L.

Surnames ending with other consonants (Kovac, Martinez) hint at a foreign origin.

6. Many Italian surnames derive from patronymics, hence referring to an ancestral patriarch: De Luca, De Angelis, D’Adamo, De Bernardi etc.
If the surname you are struggling to understand starts with De or Di, maybe the following word is a first name (in Italian or perhaps in Latin).
In many cases, the De is omitted, and the surname is resembling more closely a first name: Bernardi, Mauri, Tonietti (from Antonio), Tommasini

7. Surnames deriving from toponyms are also very frequent. They refer to the ancestral place of origin of the family: a nation, a region, a city, a town or even a hamlet of a town.
It’s the case of surnames like Spagnoli, Pugliese, Siciliano, Romano, Milano, Messina, Gissi (my surname and also a town in Abruzzo).
If you have doubts about the correct spelling of your researched surname, you may find inspiration on Google Maps!
Perhaps it originates from the name of a nearby place.

8. If you are struggling to spot your family on registers written in Latin, consider that the family name may have been translated into Latin!
For example,
Rossi may have been recorded as Rubeis.
The following image shows the Latin version of the surname
Della Casa Grande (meaning: From the Big House, hence the orphanage. It was a typical surname for foundlings)
Della Casa Grande was translated “De Domo Magna“, which has the equivalent meaning in Latin, but it’s not so easy to catch if you don’t know both languages.

(Don’t despair! Even if you do not know the meaning of the researched surname, and you wouldn’t be able to translate it into Latin, I must admit I stumbled upon this circumstance only occasionally).

I hope these few tips were helpful and I wish you good search!

How to understand…


I was inspired for this series of posts by the many requests for help that are posted on Facebook groups, where assistance in understanding handwritten records is asked.

Handwriting can be an issue, and not only for foreigners. Sometimes, even Italians struggle with unintelligible words and sentences.

Well, believe it or not, in some cases it is possible to by-pass the handwriting problem.

We could call it…


Here is the first post dedicated to PLACE NAMES

In the above record, the writer was probably confident to be smart and to create something artistic in his bureaucratic job, thanks to this fancy calligraphy.

Just the opposite, 150 years later these words are hardly readable (and the fuzzy scan doesn’t help).

Now, I am not going to teach you how to read this particular calligraphy. I am going to explain you the


the most important info about places.


If you can’t understand a place mentioned in the record, start from what you know, i.e. the town of the record (if you have the record, you should know which is the municipality or church that issued it).

At first, try to isolate some letters composing the “mystery place”.

In the above record issued by the municipality of Castel San Giovanni (province of Piacenza, region Emilia Romagna) other two towns are mentioned.

The first “mystery place” starts with Borgo, but there are hundreds places starting with BORGO, in Italy. Which is the right one?

Second example from the same record: this place name is a long name, ending with “GO” and having a “O” as a second letter. Can you understand more? That’s even better!



Go to the Italian page of the known town – Castel San Giovanni, in this case – and check its hamlets under the section FRAZIONI (right column) as well as the neighboring towns in the section COMUNI CONFINANTI.

Very often, the mystery place falls into one of these two options.

Ok, the place from the first example is surely BORGONOVO, a neighboring town. Can you read it now?

Checking the hamlets of all neighboring towns is also very useful, if this first attempt fails.

The place from the second example does not look like anyone in this list, though. We must go further.



This site provides info about all Italian towns and cities, both existing and no longer existing.

Digit some letters of the “mystery place”, the ones you understand, and you will get many records sorted out by region and province. Usually, the “mystery place” is close to the known place.

For example, by digiting simply “GO” and filtering by region Emilia Romagna and province Piacenza, you will get the following results

GOSSOLENGO is the town that matches with the place mentioned in the record. A quick check with Google Maps will help you discovering that it is very close to Castel San Giovanni.

You can use this site to search any town name in Italy, even if you don’t know where to start from.

For example, if you have a non-Italian record mentioning the town, without any clue about where it is situated, try with Elesh and you may find the correct town name.


If you can’t find a place which has been transcribed, try reading it on the original, handwritten record: it is better to search a place knowing only a few correct syllables than a full name which is wrong.



Perhaps the place mentioned in a record was a very small area within a town.

Especially in rural areas, Italian towns were often made by several scattered hamlets or areas that were called Località XXX, or Contrada XXX, or Regione XXX.

Search the known town followed by Via (street) and the mysterious toponym: usually, the old area was re-named as a street and it is now called Via XXX.

In the following map, the ancient Località Cabella is today Via Cabella.


In Italy, very often people were not travelling far. They usually moved to nearby towns in search of better working conditions, so your mystery town is probably situated close to the area you already know.

If a person mentioned in a record was coming from very far, its place of origin was often described with more precision.

So, do not wear your eyes out by trying to read difficult handwritings, and do not invent town names basing of what you think to interpretate, but investigate among existing towns and toponyms.

I hope you found this post useful.

I will be back soon with the second post of this series:


Who and what can you expect to find in Italian cemeteries?

Knowing the differences between US and Italian cemeteries can be helpful to set your expectations when visiting a cemetery in search of your ancestors’ graves.

First difference: the lack of space

Most American cemeteries are vast meadows pointed by tombstones and embellished with trees, like parks.

Most Italian cemeteries are undersized in comparison to the people who must be buried, and there is no way to make them bigger. In Italy, space is an issue.

For this reason, we adopted several rules that limit the use of cemetery space.

For example, only a small portion of the graves are underground. Most of them are wall burials.

In many cases, a family chapel gathers all family tombs on multiple levels

Or the graves of many family members are gathered in a single underground grave, often enriched by artistic artwork

So, using the space vertically and gathering many burials together are two good solutions, but there is another one. A drastic one. Exhumation.

Second difference: the exhumation

It’s sad, it’s heart-breaking, it’s frustrating and disappointing and also cruel but yes: we get rid of old burials!

As said, it’s a matter of space, but the final result is that finding your ancestors’ grave requires some luck.

The general rule is: the town sets tariffs for the burials in the local cemetery. There are tariffs for underground burials, tariffs for wall burials, for urns (cremation is becoming very common, even for a matter of costs), for ossuaries etc.

In addition to this, it sets the duration of burials: 30 years or 50 years or perhaps 10 years.

At the expiry of this concession, the municipality calls the family and proposes several options.

For example, the long-dead relative can be exhumed and his/her remains can be put in a smaller (and cheaper) tomb: an ossuary.

Or it can be exhumed and the remains moved in the same grave with another relative. In this case, usually a plate is added to the main tomb.

Another solution is – if the cemetery rules allow it – to pay for an extension of the concession.

However, if the “family call” fails, the old remains are simply exhumed and laid down in a common ossuary, the last destination of our dear ones, which has the poorest and humblest look. Most often it is only a hole in the ground covered by a stone, without a tombstone, a plate or anything useful to identify our ancestors.

It is to be said, though, that some towns allowed perpetual concessions, especially in the past. In these lucky cases, the oldest graves are as old as the rule set by the town. Usually, this dates back to the beginning of the 20th century or at latest at the end of the 19th century: in Italy, finding a grave which is older than a century requires a lot of luck!

Usually, the oldest graves are those of people born in the 19th century but deceased in the 20th century.

If you read until this point, your frustration probably grew bigger and bigger at any line, but do not give up! Your search for your ancestors’ graves can still be fruitful, and perhaps even luckier than expected!

For example, if the remains of your ancestors were exhumed and moved to a family grave, you may be able to discover all family members at once. In this case, try leaving a message: you may receive a call from your Italian family!

Third difference: the pictures

Ok, you may not find the tombs of your ancestors at all, but if you find them, it is very probable that they carry a portrait of the deceased one: it may be the only one picture of your ancestor you ever saw!

Occasionally, you may find also added info about the deceased person: in the following example, two brothers were WWI casualties and the tombstone reports the circumstances of their death.

Exceptions to the above: if your ancestors were wealthy, famous people or nobles, there is a chance more. In fact, noteworthy people were sometimes buried inside the church, not in the cemetery, and so it may be possible to find them there.

Another possibility is: if your ancestor’s grave was a remarkable artwork, perhaps it was preserved even after the expiry of the concession, for artistic reasons.

Here below, an exception: an old cemetery (19th century) that was not dismantled and it is now a kind of historical park.

I hope this article was useful. If you have doubts or question, feel free to write and ask!

If your ancestor was Alfred Artichoke, then…

Which surname can be given to a FOUNDLING?

Fir, Oak and Terebinth, and then Juniper, Cherry Tree, Poplar…

In this town of the Biella province, 22 babies who were abandoned between 1836 and 1851 were named after trees, fruits and vegetables.

Who is the descendant of Alfred Artichoke? 😁

Here is the translation of the surnames (I couldn’t catch some, though… my gardening skill is very bad)

Beech – Fir – Chestnut – Oak – Cherry tree – Bush – Boxwood – Mulberry – Hop – Apricot tree – Terebinth – Poplar – Peach tree – Paprika – Juniper – Artichoke – Melon – Acacia – Burnet

Credits of the vectorial trees: <a href=””>Alberi Vettori di Vecteezy</a>

Sharing Cheryl’s experience

I recently had the pleasure to meet the novel writer Cheryl Ossola and guide her to the discovery of her family history in the area of Val Ceresio, in Lombardia.

I am sharing the beautiful post she wrote after this ancestry tour experience. Enjoy!

Finding family in Lombardia and Liguria by Cheryl A. Ossola

The ancient cemetery of Viggiù that I visited with Cheryl

The translation of a will dated 1760 and its analysis… on YouTube!!!

Every research job shows new challenges: unknown archives to visit, mysterious families to discover, brand new problems to face.

Every customer pushes me a step forward, allowing me to do new experiences.

But among these, ROBERT SORRENTINO (at Italian Genealogy) is the one who really drives me to do frightening things such as… making a video and post it on YouTube!

If it weren’t for him, you would never hear me speaking and probably never see my face: I am too shy for this sort of things! But Robert was wonderful at guiding me through this unexplored territory made of videos and podcasts, so… THANK YOU ROBERT!

I would never have the courage to do it on my own!

The job he had asked me was the analysis of the will (dated 1760) of an important member of Robert’s aristocratic family: his 6th great uncle Gaspare De Riso.

It was a very interesting document with an enormous amount of info about the family members and their wealth, who allowed Robert to get as deep as knowing the ancestor’s psychology and thoughts.

His was – of course – a lucky situation which is more often to be found among noble people, but if your ancestors were farmers or smiths or even foundlings, do not despair! Perhaps, somewhere there’s a document that tells a lot about them the same. Finding it, it’s just a question of patience… and luck!

If you want to watch our Zoom chat and to learn more about the De Riso will and Robert’s aristocrat family, click on the following links.

Do not forget to check Robert’s blog  with many interesting podcasts and contents.

And if you have an amazing story to tell about your family, get in touch with Robert: he will be happy to drive you to the world of podcasts as he did for me!

Have a nice watch!

Listen to the podcast on Buzzsprout at:

Watch the video on YouTube at:

Check Robert Sorrentino’s blog

Try Rumble ( it’s like YouTube if you have not heard of it )

Finding Your Roots with Christopher Meloni

OK, here we are!

After 16 months, the episode of Finding Your Roots with Christopher Meloni was finally aired!

A shot from PBS’ Finding Your Roots – Season 7 Episode 4

PBS had contacted me in September 2019 and hired me to research the genealogy of their guest, the Italian-American actor Christopher Meloni.

It was a brand new challenge for me, that I tried to accomplish as best as I could, working for 5 days and in 8 different archives in Liguria and Emilia Romagna.

In the end, the result was:

– two family trees (for two different family lines) totalling 49 direct ancestors

– the most ancient ancestor, Christopher’s 8th great grandfather, born around 1630

– 4 military lists

– identification of 2 houses where Christopher Meloni’s ancestors had lived

– 1 notary’s deed for the purchase of a house

– 1 local history book that a priest gave me as present

– maps, picture of places and other documents

and, of course, many stories of people who lived, worked, married and died without leaving a sign in this world except for their name in the parish records: men who were farmers, others who died of an epidemic, families who were fostering foundlings and – of course – the most striking story, that of Christopher’s great-grandfather Enrico Melone, a baby who was abandoned at birth.

It was clear from the beginning that this would have been the key story of the show and although PBS dropped all the rest – the vast majority of my job – it is clear that they couldn’t do anything else: there must be a single story or two to focus the attention on.

So, you will never know the rest about Christopher’s ancestors, I am sorry!

But don’t worry, there are other interesting and touching stories to discover: those about your own family!

Some pictures of Velva, the place where Christopher’s ancestors were from: an amazing, picturesque village on the Ligurian hills. The town center does not have roads, only stone stairs and narrow paths.

Old registers
The Missano church with the typical risseu: decorations for squares and courtyards made with small, round stones in different colors

Link to access the video:


In 2019 I had the honor to work for the PBS TV channel, researching the genealogy of a guest at the show Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The guest is Christopher Meloni, a famous Italian-American actor, and his episode will be aired on Tuesday, February 9th – Season 7, Episode 4

I can’t wait to see how Christopher will react to the things I discovered about his family!

Christopher Meloni watching his family tree at Finding Your Roots by PBS

But I will have to wait, instead, because PBS is not broadcasted in Italy and I will only be able to stream the episode some days later.

If you can, watch it and… enjoy!

(the picture of Christopher Meloni is a screenshot from the official Season 7 trailer that you can watch here:

Ricercare informazioni genealogiche nei documenti delle visite pastorali

Cosa sono le visite pastorali?

Sono i viaggi che ogni vescovo organizzava periodicamente per visitare tutte le parrocchie della diocesi al fine di controllare lo stato dei beni ecclesiastici (luoghi di culto, opere d’arte, reliquie), per accertarsi che la situazione contabile fosse ben gestita ecc.

Quando si effettuavano le visite pastorali?

La frequenza è variabile, solitamente l’intervallo tra una visita e la successiva è di qualche anno.

L’obbligo per il vescovo di visitare le parrocchie a lui sottoposte è stato sancito con il Concilio di Trento, quindi i primi documenti risalgono alla fine del 1500 circa.

Che cosa sono i documenti delle visite pastorali?

Tra i documenti si trovano i rapporti stilati dai cancellieri, che riportano i dettagli della visita (l’itinerario, le parrocchie visitate, i beni e le reliquie che il vescovo ha controllato ecc.), le schede biografiche di tutti i preti e gli altri ecclesiastici, nonchè i rapporti che i parroci erano obbligati a redigere con l’indicazione dei beni, dei debiti e crediti, e delle eventuali problematiche concernenti la parrocchia.

Dove sono conservati questi documenti?

Presso gli archivi storici delle diocesi e arcidiocesi


Le finalità per cui questi rapporti venivano stilati non avevano nulla a che fare con la genealogia o con le famiglie in generale, pur tuttavia vi si trovano elenchi di persone e questo potrebbe permettere, con un po’ di fortuna, di trovare informazioni preziose su un antenato.

In pratica, i documenti delle visite pastorali potrebbero essere una fonte alternativa dove cercare informazioni quando si è di fronte ad un ostacolo, oppure quando si desidera approfondire la conoscenza del proprio antenato.

Le informazioni più consistenti sono ovviamente quelle relative ai religiosi, che possono rivelarsi utili nel caso in cui il religioso facesse parte della famiglia che stiamo cercando.

Inoltre, la ricerca in questi documenti può essere un valido aiuto per capire qual era la parrocchia di riferimento, che in caso di paesi molto piccoli poteva anche non trovarsi in loco: nei documenti si potrebbe quindi scoprire che l’oratorio del paese A si appoggiava alla parrocchia del paese B, e risalire quindi al luogo dove sono conservati i registri parrocchiali relativi agli abitanti di A.

Qui di seguito ecco alcuni esempi.

Introduzione agli atti della visita pastorale del Vescovo di Novara, Ignazio Rotario
Sanseverino, in data 5 maggio 1752 con l’indicazione dei comuni visitati

Elenco dei documenti richiesti dal Vescovo, che i parroci della diocesi erano tenuti a presentare durante la visita del 1752

Esempio di tomi delle visite pastorali (non voglio scoraggiare nessuno, ma è meglio essere preparati…)

Elenco delle religiose presso il Monastero di S. Antonio Abate in Intra (anno 1752)

Prima pagina della scheda personale del parroco don Angelo Francesco Scaramuzzi, città di Intra

Inventario dei crediti spettanti all’oratorio di Cambiasca (derivanti da affitti) con i nomi degli affittuari

Esempio di importanti informazioni familiari che si possono rinvenire in questi documenti: menzione di un legato da distribuirsi ai poveri, lasciato dal fu Pietro Baratto nel suo testamento rogato dal notaio Colla con atto del 22 dicembre 1751. Sarebbe sufficiente in questo caso accedere al testamento per scoprire l’intera parentela del Baratto.

Altro esempio: persone che si impegnano ad una donazione alla parrocchia

Con la speranza che possa essere di aiuto nella Vostra ricerca, auguro buon lavoro e buona fortuna!


P.S. Se volete, qui sotto potete scaricare la versione in PDF di questo articolo.